*This piece documents the farming life of rural peasants in northern Shaanxi Province, China. This is part of a larger ethnographic study I wrote on the village of Dang Jia Shan -- my first visit was part of an Earthwatch-funded expedition, and I returned the following year to continue documenting independently, though concurrent with another Earthwatch team. Please find more topics in the Travel Essays page. When I say "we," I refer to me and other members of the Earthwatch teams.*
During the Cultural Revolution, the peasants were not allowed to plant fruit trees in their village fields. “Staple crops” was Chairman Mao’s mantra to the peasants. After the Great Leap Forward ended in absurd and tragic failure, he returned to agriculture and then his whole country was made to live as ascetic peasants—schools and universities closed; intellectuals and wealthy people were thrown into the fields and labor camps.
There’s something oddly heroic in the fundamental idea of turning a nation back to the land, plowing everyone under into the ancient past to reclaim the revolution that long, long ago had turned humans from nomads into “civilized” folk and provided the foundation for the formation of nation-states. Mao edified the peasants, saying theirs was the life everyone should lead, just at the edge of subsistence. At long last the peasants were not lowly serfs to be spit upon, but model citizens to be emulated. Often, though, the peasants didn’t actually appreciate the city dwellers that were flung into their fields to work, for the city people were not usually cut out for the farm work and did things wrongly, incompletely or feebly, and they were just more mouths for the farmers to have to feed as they boarded in the rural villages. The Chinese nation was to be remolded from the dirt. It was as if they were being resurrected as Emperor Qin’s terra cotta soldiers; they were to be made from earthy clay and fired in the kilns of labor to harden them, holding weapons of spades and scythes, armored with only a presumed will to live. But the urbanites mostly cracked and the peasants were of the earth already—it was a pointless exercise.
Mao dictated that green lawns and all flowers were to be pulled up and thrown away; you would likely be beaten up if Red Guards found a petunia in your windowsill. Fruit trees and the delicious vegetables were types of bourgeois luxuries to be scorned. Only the most mundane was worthy of existing. Staple crops! In the north these included corn, soybean, millet, cowpea, sorghum, and buckwheat. Acceptable vegetables to grow included potato, Chinese cabbage, radish, squash, and legumes such a mung beans.
After Mao, in the 1980s, the agricultural policies were relaxed. The villagers started planting date trees again, which had always done well in the northern loess region. Now they rotate a wide variety of different crops in their fields, including alfalfa for the livestock. Staple crops still occupy the majority of the village land, but smaller patches are intermingled throughout the area with sesame, bell peppers, green onion, peanuts, watermelon and others.
Fruit trees and mulberry bushes are now scattered throughout the village. Huge sunflowers strain thick stalks and bright yellow daylilies cheer up the fields.
Within their private courtyards many villagers grow an incredible variety of vegetables and fruits in small plots for their family consumption. One day we inspected Anju’s courtyard garden and counted over thirty different types of produce growing, including tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, hot peppers, cilantro, chives, cabbage, carrots, peanuts, pumpkins, fruit trees—apple, peach, apricot—kohlrabi, several varieties of beans, peas; and in the second year I was there, with all the rain, most of the vegetables were growing to astonishing sizes. Anju picked a bowl full of softball-sized tomatoes for us to eat while we documented his garden. When I asked to take his picture, his brown feet and legs melted into the land like roots, his arms were an extension of the trellis; he looked as much a part of the garden as the peaches and pumpkins.
Just across the path from Earthwatch teams’ yao [traditional cave home] lived the grandparents of our adorable and gregarious little friend, 10-year old Xiu-Xiu. Her grandfather, Old Man Xiu-Xiu (as I call him because I only know the name of his granddaughter), still grows his own tobacco in a little plot near his courtyard, and his pipe was never far from his lips. When it wasn’t in his mouth, it hung from his neck on a string along with a pouch of tobacco.
But most of the villagers now buy cartons of commercial cigarettes (with a pantheon of cute animal brands like Good Cat, Dancing Butterfly, Flying Horse and Panda). American cigarette companies are starting to corner the market. But ironically, foreign tobacco trade in China was a major factor fostering bad feelings from the Chinese toward “foreign devils.” As part of the Opium War indemnities in the later 1800s, China was forced to open herself to Western goods and trade, tobacco being one of the main ones; foreign goods were not taxed, while Chinese tobacco and other goods were taxed almost to absurdity. Chinese tobacco farmers and companies couldn’t hold their ground in this atmosphere of partiality to the Western countries. Many families lost their businesses. So I was interested to learn that now American-brand cigarettes are the chic coveted ones. (But I was encouraged that many young people, including Qi-Wei, Li-Li and most of the village teenagers, are very anti-smoking; they’ve become conscious of its detrimental health effects.)
When the watermelons come into season, the villagers erect little A-frame tents and someone from the family spends the nights in there, sleeping on a raised platform of two hard wooden slats, watching over their valuable crop. Watermelon thievery has been a seasonal career for some ever since the abolition of village communes—one of the sadder upshots of the economic transition from community to individual; many peasants claim that during the Maoist era no one ever stole anything because everything belonged to everybody.
The highway between Yulin City and Jiaxian City was lined with watermelon vendors in August. People sat torpid by the roadside with their watermelons and other produce at their feet. I thought, well it must be worthwhile for them to spend their time there, but a giant watermelon will be sold for only one or two yuan and maybe only two or three will be sold in a day, netting less than a dollar (US$) per day. And yet, this apparently makes it worthwhile. (Anrong said there is a Chinese saying that if you want to get rich, you have to live near the road.)
The peasants use their own excrement as fertilizer for the fields. I must say, however unpalatable the thought is, it seems efficacious – the produce is very healthy. And it certainly is practical for long-standing villages with no plumbing. When the latrines become full, some lucky family member gets to stick a metal pail into them, scoop out the content and take it to the fields. One morning one of the Earthwatch volunteers came into our yao exclaiming, “I just saw a woman carrying buckets of shit on her shoulders!” In older days in China, the human excrement business was a particularly lucrative one. Second only to the salt industry for many hundreds of years, the human waste industry was one of the best opportunities for corrupt officials to turn a nice personal profit. Chinese cities have traditionally collected their waste and sold it to the peasants for fertilizer. One way for the servants in wealthy households to make a little extra money on the side was to secretly hand over one or two of the chamber pots each morning to the black market, meeting someone in a dark alleyway or at a corner gate in the back of the courtyard.
A peasant family’s total land holding is often not contiguous, but distributed in patches here and there. For decades after the founding of the Socialist Republic of China, peasant villages operated as communes and every piece of land was worked on behalf of the entire village. People were sent out all over the village’s land holdings to work, and were often far afield from their homes. After the village communes dissolved and land was parceled out to individual families, the village councils were responsible for divvying it up. They generally tried to be as fair as they could. In many villages, perhaps even in Dang Jiashan, personal rivalries or feuds involving a council member could result in some families getting shafted in their land appropriation. In Dang Jiashan if a family complained, the council would try to solve the dispute, but if that failed, an outside mediator was called in.
The council of Dang Jiashan divided the village lands into three grades: the best land, the worst land, and the mediocre land. Each grade was then divided into the same number of portions, and each family in the village received one portion of each grade of land, for a total sum of about two acres of cropland.
The farming tools the villagers use are very traditional: basic hoes, rakes and spades, a simple hand-cranked thresher, a wooden plow with a single metal blade and leather straps that hook over a man’s shoulder, or if he’s lucky to own one, his donkey or ox. For the most part, while wandering village lands, we found people working alone in fields, but occasionally they had the company of a child or scarecrow.
One day while I was wandering around alone, I came across Papa working his field. I saw him up ahead and waved. When I got closer, I found his blue jacket lying neatly folded on top of his blue cloth shoes just at the edge of the path, beneath the leaves of a sesame plant. I can’t explain why, but I found this terribly endearing: elderly Papa, well into his 70s, working the fields in his bare feet, gently hoeing shallow wells around each plant to hold rainwater in place around the roots. Little Papa, barefoot Papa, smiling under the white towel he wore wrapped around his head; blue Papa in the same navy clothes as every day; brown Papa, brown with sun and soil filling his pores, caking his hands, ancient loess squished into the crooks of his toes.
My first year in the village, I was fascinated with Papa’s hands. My grandpa and my dad both have memorable hands; in fact, it was one of my dad’s defining features—his big, strong hands. If over the years I forget the look of my dad’s and grandpa’s faces, I’ll never forget what their hands looked like. Papa Dang’s hands were big and thick, too, and encrusted with dirt so that the earth was a second skin to him. The next year, I noticed they were much cleaner; perhaps Anrong said something to him about cleaning his hands for the foreigners. But I was rather disappointed. I loved the earthen hands.
One day we came across Anju and his wife together picking long beans, and Anrong invited us to try it, too. So we all squatted down, including all the village children who had been trailing along with us that day. It was fun for about fifteen minutes. Then my tender-white foreign hands began to flinch at the roughness of the beans in my fingertips as I plucked them, being careful not to break off the little branch which sprouted them. And then my knees began to complain at the continual squatting, so I stood and bent over, and then after awhile my back complained of that, so I switched between squatting and bending, and the whole while my fingers felt more and more raw. And I remembered what a group of the village women told us the previous year, when they said that in their youth they worked so hard in the fields that their hands were raw and bloody. They opened their hands to us, exposing their palms and pointed to where they used to bleed. These women grew up in this life, and still the work extracted their blood from them.
I empathized with all those city people who during the Cultural Revolution had been exiled into the countryside, all the teenagers who had been made to work with the peasants, who had grown up in white-collar families and had never touched the dirt with their hands, suddenly thrown to the ground from dawn to dusk working in the fields that drain even the peasants themselves. People like Jiang Lu, whose intellectual parents had been shipped off to hard labor as she was sent out to the crop fields in the summer. Whenever Jiang spoke of her time working in the countryside, she mentioned how terribly hard the work was: “It was a very bitter life,” she said. I have met several people of the same experience in the last few years, and none have wished to say much of it. Mostly they look off into an unfocused distance when they mention it, offer no further details than the name of the places they worked, and then fall into a silence that seems too desolate to trespass. I cannot yet bring myself to ask more about it.
And despite the peasants’ hard work, many years crops fail as a result of the merciless weather, either too wet or too dry, but more often too dry. Anju says typically the crops fail at least a couple times each decade, and about every fifteen years or so the failure is severe, sometimes for two years in row. In the past, people starved to death during these years, but now most villagers are able to store up sufficient supplies during the good years to cover the bad years. Anju says his family has about two years’ worth of staple food stored.
Villagers store supplies inside their yao in cloth sacks or ceramic jars. Some of their countertops are actually cement bins. Little lids lift up all along the counter and reveal deep storage bins. Also, many things, such as potatoes, are stored right in the ground. When you walk along the paths in the village, you will see all along them little square stone slabs leaned up against the hillsides. These are doors to underground storage pits. It looks improbable that a person could fit through a doorway that small, but several times walking about, I saw a black hole in the hillside where a stone slab had been removed, and I peered inside to find a woman sitting in the darkness, putting potatoes into a basket.
There are several reasons why the peasant villagers’ lots have improved in recent times, allowing them the luxury of storing up excess food. For one, before the birth control policy was instigated in China and before peasants started leaving the countryside in droves to find work in the cities, many plots of farmland had dwindled to such tiny parcels that a family could barely survive even on a good harvest. This was largely because for each son born to a family, the family would divide its land among the sons. Then when each son had his own son, he had to divide his land further to provide for the next generation. After a time, with no ability to buy more land, each family unit had only a tiny plot of land. There would seldom be enough produce to sell, and maybe not even enough to fill their own bellies. There was no way to rotate crops or let the land recover. Working extra land for a landlord netted very little profit as the landlord paid puny “wages” and charged excessive taxes. Many people, not only in Dang Jiashan but also in other villages we visited, mentioned that the birth control policy was instrumental in improving the quality of the land and therefore the quality of peasant life. Without such big families to have to subdivide their land and income among, now farmers can have bigger plots and rotate crops; they eat better and are making some money, and can even afford to let some land be used in the government’s Reforestation Project.
Another major factor in improving their lives is that the central government, in the last decade, began gradually lessening the tax burden on agricultural peasants until finally, in 2006, it removed all taxes. Now the peasants’ net profits remain in their own pockets. First Sister said, “Compared to the old days, life now is like heaven.”
Life for the peasants until recently has not only been hard and unheavenly, but without opportunity and resource. I may compare their lives with their contemporaries in America because I come from a line of farmers on both sides of my family. My maternal grandparents were dry-land farmers in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl years, when instead of rain the locusts came in clouds, and dust blew in and drifted against the fences like snow. They were poor and worked hard. They worked three farms during the War. But even as poor farmers with five children who sewed their clothes out of the sacks that flour and chicken feed came in, they still had six head of horses to pull their plow. They still could take out a bank loan. They bought their first tractor in about 1942 and got access to irrigation canals. They had small pockets of free time except during the War, and Grandpa started a rodeo club.
In contrast, bank loans are unheard of for Chinese peasants; most of them still work their fields with no beast of burden except their own body; in the majority of rural villages the most advanced farming technologies are hoes and scythes with metal blades—the occasional tractor-cart can only haul things, and there are no combines or multi-row plows. Some villages (including Dang Jiashan) have small hand-cranked threshing machines to process some of the crops after they are harvested by hand.
Papa Dang is less than ten years older than my dad, and has never had the opportunity or resource to be anything but a peasant. When my dad was running a tractor on his parents’ farm as a teenager, Papa Dang was, and still is, pulling a tiny plow and tending the fields with his back and a hoe. While my dad was deciding to become a rocket scientist and taking calculus and seriously advanced mathematics courses, Papa Dang was working away at his abacus, and was well respected for doing so, a cut above the rest, and managed the village's accounting and figured the taxes for many villagers. I’ve come to see that during all my family’s years of hard manual labor, even in the worst of times, they lived in America in practical opulence compared to their contemporaries in China.
Anrong, as I’ve mentioned, is the same age as my brother. When my brother was an infant, my dad was working at Rocketdyne designing fuel for the Saturn V rocket engines. I recently asked Anrong when he first knew about the Americans’ trip to the moon. His written response was:
"I am sorry to say that I got to know that event when I was a middle school student. At that time, one of my teacher told us the story, and I was just could not understand how they went there and why they went there at that time. Before that, I never know it because no body around me knew it. I am also sorry to say that even now, only a few villager in my village know that story because no body care about it. It is too far away from their life."
Their life is terrestrial, rooted—rooted so far down that they can’t see anything above the plane of the earth’s surface. If they look up at the sky and its inhabitants, it’s with mild contemplation. Mostly they are too exhausted to do anything with the moon but sleep beneath it.
Anju contemplates other means of living besides farming. Perhaps they would be better off raising livestock, he says, growing grasses to feed them with and selling the animals. There are several villagers who graze flocks of sheep. Or perhaps they could build greenhouses to improve their yield of vegetables.
One afternoon hiking around the area with Anrong, he pointed out holes dug into the brown dirt in the wild fields, where no crops were growing. This was where people had dug out wild plants to sell for use in traditional Chinese medicines. So everyone carries on the best they can, supplementing their crop yields with anything else they can find to do, but they are almost completely reliant on what they can convince the terraced ground to give up to them.
Many peasants have visions of the city, and they work with an emptiness in their soul, living neither here nor there. But it seemed not Anju, who showed us all the types of chores that need to be done, who heads the village council, who does everything with a palpable serenity, with an acceptance of the land and his place in it. He doesn’t think of leaving; he thinks of persisting, of trying to keep open the dialogue with the land. He plants new forests with the traditional crops, and prays for his land—for all of the village land, which has been in his heart since the moment of his birth.
One afternoon as I stood talking with Anrong in the fields, I watched Anju with his pant-legs rolled up, hoeing the date trees along the edge of a terrace, their pale green leaves rustling in the gentle breeze; behind him was the red backdrop of the iron-soaked hills.
His young niece, Lei-Lei, who was often in our company, climbed into one of the trees near him and waved out from the branches, giggling, “Uncle, Uncle, look at me!” And neither Uncle nor anyone can resist her sweet little voice. Anju stopped for just a brief moment and looked sideways at his niece, then turned back to his hoe with a gentle countenance, while the blue sky looked down on us all impassively. He knows her like he knows all young things, tender and green; he chuckled and tucked her leafy smile into his earthen heart.
Endnote: I was shocked to learn in 2013 that Anju had moved to the city of Yulin, and he and his wife had gotten jobs there. When I wrote this piece, I was convinced he had a genuine bond with the land, that he was a willing farmer. I learned that the village is nearly deserted now, the farmland sits untended, growing over with wild weeds. It seems sad, but when you can get a job in the city working 9 to 5, even if it's seven days a week, and even if you're doing construction work or janitorial work, for the same money you net farming, you don't have to get up before dawn and work until sunset in backbreaking labor. Naturally, one would be inclined to choose an easier life, and city jobs are now readily available. I feel the documentary work I did in Dang Jia Shan is more valuable than ever now as the village no longer exists in the state it once did, and villages across the region are being abandoned. It turns out I've written an historical account of the traditional peasant farming life in northern China.
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